As for the game itself at times it is fluid and aesthetically pleasing, at times sloppy and arrhythmic. In other words it's pro basketball. But the on-court similarities between the WNBA and the NBA end there. The Rockers and Lynx provide few traditional highlight plays like dunks, killer crossovers or showboat passes. Trash talk is nonexistent. Although Minnesota boasts the league's leading scorer in Smith, there are no isolation plays designed for her to go one-on-one.
In the WNBA, defense and team play are the coin of the realm. Hardly a possession goes by without all five players touching the ball. Centers routinely hoist the three, and guards are skilled at posting up. The shooting accuracy is neither exceptional nor exceptionally bad. (During the 2001-02 season NBA teams shot 44.5% from the field and 75.2% from the line; through Sunday, WNBA teams were shooting 42.2% and 73.8%, respectively.) The difference is that there are no easy baskets in the WNBA—even in garbage time. "This is basketball the way it ought to be," says Joe Tait, the Rockers' radio announcer and the voice of the Cavaliers for 30 years. "It reminds me of how the NBA used to be before it went and got macho."
Thanks to Cleveland's zone defense, Smith has an off night, scoring 12 points, 6.1 below her season average. Still, the Rockers have a hard time finding the rim and trail 45-41 with 9:09 to go. "Time to turn it up," Hughes implores during a timeout, and the team responds, closing out the game with a 17-3 run to win 58-48.
As the Lynx falter in the stretch, there are no boos from the sparse crowd, generously announced as 5,087 Rather, chants of Defense mount in decibels. When Minnesota, down by 10 with 10.6 seconds left, inexplicably calls time, few scurry to the exits. Asked why there was no jeering, Queen is stunned. "You can't be a fair-weather fan," she says. "They're trying hard out there. Why make them feel worse?"
THURSDAY, July 18
By 9:30 the Rockers are back in Cinnabon Nation, negotiating the Minneapolis airport. At the gate shooting guard Tricia Bader Binford, a devout Baptist, distributes bracelets and rubber bands embroidered with the phrase GO B.I.G. GO BELIEVING IN GOD. "A year ago I wouldn't have taken one," says a passenger on the flight. "But now I'll try anything before getting on a flight."
In the wake of Sept. 11 commercial air travel has become even more arduous for WNBA teams. The Rockers arrive at airports two hours before flights and spend an unearthly amount of time in lines for security checks. Leaguewide, players make the best of the hassles. Last month, for instance, the Liberty was waylaid at Newark Airport for seven hours en route to Detroit. Players spent the time holding an impromptu clinic for fans and singing and dancing. But the inconvenience of travel—and the knowledge that NBA players travel on catered, chartered flights—is another reminder that for the WNBA, the big-time remains elusive.
It is also the kind of issue that galvanizes support for the players' association. The collective bargaining agreement between the union and the league expires on Sept. 15. Three years ago the players were at the we're-just-happy-to-be-getting-paid stage and made what they felt were wholesale concessions. This time they vow to come to the table with a list of grievances as well as demands for improved working conditions. Already there have been rumblings of both a players' strike and a preemptive lockout by owners. Some players fear that if there is a work stoppage, NBA commissioner David Stern and the league's owners will pull the plug. "I think their attitude is 'Take it or leave it,' " says one Eastern Conference player. "Hey, they call the shots."
For the players there are advantages to the WNBA's close alliance with the NBA. The women were able to tap into the NBA's relationships with television networks and blue-chip sponsors like Coca-Cola and McDonald's. The WNBA teams are owned collectively by the NBA's 29 established, experienced (and deep-pocketed) franchise owners. Teams play in NBA arenas and have access to state-of-the-art training facilities, practice gyms and video technology. "We wouldn't have started the league under any other model," says Ackerman.
The relationship also has its drawbacks. Like a venture capital firm that underwrites a start-up, the NBA wields considerable control over its little-sister league. The single-entity structure of the WNBA predetermines the pay scale and precludes free agency. The league severely restricts players' off-court income—during the season, when their marketability is highest, they are prohibited from endorsing products and companies deemed to compete with the WNBA's 16 official sponsors. Players are also required to make 10 gratis appearances for sponsors before earning $700 stipends for subsequent ones. Their first 12 appearances for the team are also freebies. "We're just asking for our fair share," says Houston Comets star forward Sheryl Swoopes, who is reportedly the league's highest-paid player, with a base salary of roughly $80,000. "The league controls everything we do and everything we're allowed to do."